Death of a comedian at standup event

14 May
Nat Luurtsema

Nat Luurtsema

I’ve never seen a comedian die on stage before last night. It wasn’t pleasant, and it’s something I’d rather never see again.

Putting on an alternative standup comedy night as part of the Swindon Festival of Literature wasn’t, in itself, such a far-out idea. The festival has a proud history of showcasing comedic talent: Julian Clary in 2009, Milton Jones in 2010, Harry Hill in 2011, Alex Horne last week…

This was a new venture though – little known comedians performing club-style routines, as opposed to household names talking about their books, and cracking some gags along the way.

Because it was untried, the audience was small – no more than twenty punters in a venue that could have comfortably held five times as many.

The problem for the line-up of three comedians was that it was so damned hard to gauge the mood of the audience.

Likewise it was hard for audience members to demonstrate their appreciation, when it was warranted, because you feel a berk as the lone laugher in a crowd.

I’ve never done stand-up, but I’d imagine playing to a quiet audience is far more difficult than playing to an up-for-it crowd with the odd heckler.

So it was an up-hill struggle for Nat Luurtsema, who kicked off the night with a mixture of her standup and readings from her book, Cuckoo in the Nest.

The book, like a lot of her routine, was about the awkwardness of moving back to live with your parents in your 30s, after a decade of independence.

Luurtsema was funny and engaging. Her observational storytelling, in which the members of her family make frequent appearances, reminded me of Guardian columnist Lucy Mangan.

And like Mangan – who gentlefolk will be shocked to hear swears like a trooper all over Twitter – Luurtsema reigned herself back for the perceived sensibilities of her literary audience.

So when reading from Cuckoo in the Nest, she elected to self-edit a rude bit. I’d imagine I wasn’t the only person in the audience thinking ‘go on – read it!’, but I’m fully aware that I wasn’t alone in keeping quiet about my feelings.

Affable - Joe Wells

Affable – Joe Wells

Affable Joe Wells specialises in political comedy. His schtick is his socialist worldview, but he felt the need to check, and check again, that he wasn’t standing in front of a room full of Tories before launching into the more leftwing gems from his set.

He seemed quite relieved not to have been booed off (as he was in Kent) when he cracked this corker: “I heard Margaret Thatcher spent Christmas alone last year. It’s a bit sad, but never mind, she’ll be spending it with her husband this year.”

“Come on – Thatcher! Easy target! Ben Elton made a career out of it! Stick the boot in!, the liberal crowd were probably thinking.”

A regular feature of Joe’s set is the reading of intentionally bad (I assume) poetry from a little notebook. His verse Performance Poet, delivered with the affected voice and mannerisms of a performance poet, was hilarious, and deservedly got the biggest laugh of the night.

You could see the punchline of his poem Writer’s Block (that poem in full: “I’ve got writer’s block”) coming a mile off, but it didn’t make it any less funny.

Wil Hodgson - material ran dry

Wil Hodgson – material ran dry

After an subdued start, it was fair to assume that local lad Wil Hodgson would pull things back.

This is an autobiographical comedian with a track record – a Perrier award winner who’s played to packed houses (bigger than this one) at the Edinburgh Festival.

He’s the Chippenham lad who used to sport a pink mohican hairstyle. Readers of the Gazette & Herald will, I guarantee, have seen his picture and read of his successes.

His next show – Kidnapped by Catwoman – will be able his sexual fetishes, which mainly revolve around domineering women; preferably bad girls who smoke.

After some stock material from his set – the dichotomy of being a hard man with a fascination for the Spice Girls and My Little Pony – he tried out some of his new material.

The problem, though, is that a tough audience – albeit a non-vocal one – is probably not the best crowd in front of which to try out a new routine. As Hodgson tried and failed to find the trigger that would get the audience laughing, his material ran dry.

His set ended with an admission of failure, and left with polite applause ringing in his ears. I suspect the former professional wrestler and veteran of the Anti Nazi League would have preferred the baying of a drunken mob to that.

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